The "mixed ability versus setting" debate, currently creating bewilderment among unreconstructed members of the Labour Party, is now ruffling Scottish feathers. This is underlined by recent Grampian research into school-leavers' perceptions over three years which shows that a fairly large number did not feel challenged by their classwork. (Another substantial group found it too taxing.)
It seems that the United Kingdom practice of mixed-ability teaching continues to arouse incomprehension among continental educationists, both for its mediocre results and the stresses and strains it places on our teachers. The recent Edinburgh University seminar on improving school effectiveness managed to allow itself to become mired down in the selection issue: to the extent that it was seriously suggested that the remedy for inequity was a return to the strict (and unenforceable) school catchments of the 1970s.
Let's get back into the real world. Perhaps the slant of the analysis by the Centre for Education Sociology merely illustrates the limits of relevance of sociological research to the lives of young people preparing to enter a competitive world. Low achievers in the Scottish education system may be so cradled by its gentle and sheltering embrace that they are somewhat unready for the harsh realities of a thoroughly elitist society. The culture of achievement surrounds them from the moment they write their earliest c.v. or face their first job interview and discover that their spelling lets them down.
Exam results? The Grampian study finds an average difference for pupils of four Standard grades between schools with the best and the worst results. But taking account of "pupil characteristics, school social context and local deprivation factors" this research concludes that such differences are marginal. In other words, if raw results are adjusted (in a manner which remains incomprehensible to the average parent), disparities between schools are inconsequential.
Parents are rather unlikely to believe that such adjustments are all it takes for every Grampian school to hit average. To suggest that academic results can be excised from variations in school performance is chimeric. Such illusions of the mind do not contribute greatly to the quest for school effectiveness. Indeed, this remarkable conclusion was too much for one seminar delegate, who protested that here was an equal opportunities issue. Such conclusions, he said, are "disempowering and disenabling" to large numbers of children.
The search for "value-added" factors is both elusive and important, but school improvement is not particularly well served by disregarding the "added" bit. External assessment of the quality of learning is part and parcel of accountability. Secrecy is not a serious option. Perhaps the demise of the Scottish Examination Board and the birth of the Scottish Qualifications Authority will help to create a healthier perspective on achievement.
The Edinburgh research, linking low achievement to deprivation and social class factors, concludes that "raw examination results are of little real value in monitoring school improvement". This is, however, arguably at odds with parallel research unveiled by Stirling University. Here four actual school models are described. The leafy school with advantaged pupils may be either relatively ineffective - or effective. Likewise and interestingly, the school in a tough area with disadvantaged pupils may also be ineffective - or highly effective.
No real surprises here to non-sociologists. But this research is a blow to gloomy determinism: the self-fulfilling prophecies which limit expectations and assumptions of children's potential according to background and community.
Calvinistic attitudes have little to offer seekers after the holy grail of school effectiveness. There is no single magic nostrum, but it does seem that inspired leadership helps.